Your Kid Can Become a Citizen Scientist with These 7 Apps

Has your kid ever asked you what you do in the lab all day? (“Hmm…good question, what am I doing all day?”) A simplified answer might sound something like this: I observe, ask a question, collect data, and use those data to answer the question (or at least try!). The scientific method may be difficult to explain to a kindergartner, but you can always start by encouraging them to observe the world around them, ask lots of questions—and even help collect data. In fact, with the help of technology, your child can become a scientist without 7 long years in graduate school or ever setting foot in a lab. A “citizen scientist”, that is. All you need is a smart phone. Here is a list of apps that can make your kid, grandma, neighbor, anyone, become a citizen scientist by helping professional scientists collect data for their research. The apps are all free to download, easy to use and have a real impact on the scientific community.

1. iNaturalist:

Are you sick of not knowing the answer when your child asks “What’s this bug?” on a nature walk? You need the iNaturalist app. Here’s how it works: You observe an interesting plant/insect/animal, take a photo, and the app identifies the name of the species and some basic information about it. There is also the option to share your finding with other users and they can suggest an identification. iNaturalist shares your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists understand biodiversity. You can even set up scavenger hunt-like activities: iNaturalist birthday party anyone? Continue reading

Genes to Cells to Genomes: Where Will Your Research Questions Take You?

Award presentation

Dr. Walter Blum wins trip to Promega headquarters as part of Promega Switzerland’s 25th Anniversary celebration.

Walter Blum knew how normal cells worked. He had studied and read about the pathways that regulated cell cycles, growth and development; he saw the cell as an amazingly well programmed, intricate machine. What he wanted to understand was: “Why does a cell become crazy? How does it escape immune system surveillance?”

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Blum, a customer of our Promega Switzerland branch. Dr. Blum won a trip to visit our campus in Madison for a week as part of an anniversary celebration for our Switzerland branch. While here, he got an inside peek at research and manufacturing operations, chatted with our scientists, met with our marketing teams and saw the sights in Madison. We talked about his work and what he learned and is taking back with him from his trip to Madison. Continue reading

“Reverse” Molecular Reactions in DNA through Mind-Body Interventions

While my morning routine typically only involves a large cup of coffee, increasingly more Americans are beginning their days with a set of sun salutations. Sun salutations are a series of poses originating from yoga, one of the most popular types of mind-body intervention in the United States. Along with yoga, other commonly recognized mind-body interventions (MBI) include meditation, mindfulness, Tai chi, and Qigong. Despite the fact that each of these activities differ in the amount of physical effort required, they all view mental and physical health as single cohesive system.

The influence of overall mind-body intervention on health and wellness is an ancient concept that is now revolutionizing Western medicine. In the past, Western medicine has focused primarily on the health of the physical body. Yoga and meditation were viewed as beneficial, but were less likely to be recommended by clinicians as a method for relief. Now, with recent developments in gene expression analysis techniques, we have a better understanding of biological mechanisms and how they interact with psychological variables. A possible shift in clinician’s philosophies can be seen in the steady rise in the complementary health approaches of yoga, Tai chi, and qi gong1.

To completely understand how MBI affects a person’s health, we must first realize the links between stress and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA refers to the common molecular pattern discovered in individuals facing hardship. Whether it be in the form of diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or the death of a loved one, the characteristics of CTRA stay consistent. CTRA causes an influx in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These neuromodulators then affect the production of transcription factors. Continue reading

Five Summer Science Projects that are so Fun Your Kids Won’t Realize They are Learning

It is summer here in Wisconsin and the kids are out of school. If you are like me, you are looking for things to keep them busy and (bonus!) maybe teach them something. Below is a list of relatively easy, do-at-home science projects that can be fun for the whole family to try.

Parental supervision is recommended/required for these. And if you don’t want to worry about major clean up (or repainting walls and ceilings) you might want to do these outside whenever possible. I might be speaking from personal experience on this point, so trust me.

Continue reading

An Unexpected History Lesson

Hillside Trail, Muir Woods National Monument

Hiking the Hillside Trail in Muir Woods National Monument

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

–Woodie Guthrie

When my daughter was in preschool, she learned the lyrics to Woodie Guthrie’s folk song This Land Is Your Land. After one summer vacation, while she played in the Gulf stream waters off the coast of Florida, she asked, “Can we go see the Redwood Forest now?”

I had never seen the Redwood Forest, and my daughter’s request piqued my curiosity. I thought about my own childhood, when I had accompanied my older sister on a botany class project to collect plants and how curious I was about the plants and where they grew and what their names meant. Suddenly I wanted to see the Redwoods, and the Giant Sequoias.

It took a few years, but we managed to design a vacation trip that satisfied my daughter’s request to see the Redwood Forest and my growing curiosity, and I am so glad we did.  Continue reading

Helping Others through Science and Service

Science has been an important part of my life for a long time. One of my motivations for being a scientist was to help people. As scientists, there are many ways that we make a difference. For example, doing research that reveals information about basic biological processes can provide insight into how a disease might wreak havoc, and in turn facilitate drug design and effective disease treatments. I can say from experience that it’s especially rewarding to go beyond the impact of science to assist someone in the community face to face.

A St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry host helps a client to shop for food.

Just over 5 years ago, I started volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Madison Food Pantry, the largest in Dane County, Wisconsin, which serves an average of about 400 families per week1. The pantry uses a customer-choice model in which clients are allotted points to shop for food, allowing them to make selections that preserve their dignity and ethnic diversity. The food pantry has a small staff, so volunteers are vital to keep things running. I serve as a “host” to clients and assist them to shop around the pantry for the items that they need. It has been such a positive experience for me. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not changing the world, but I’m helping someone to get essential items to make ends meet for their family. Tough times can happen to anyone, and it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help. My goal is to make the experience for clients as positive as possible by being cheerful, courteous and respectful during their time at the pantry. If my help can make a person forget even for a moment that they have fallen on hard times, then I call that a win!

A desire to make a difference in the community through volunteerism is one of the characteristics that I really like about working at Promega. At a recent company meeting, employees were asked to share how they serve the community. Activities ranged from assisting those with disabilities to participate in athletic activities to taking care of shelter animals to starting a non-profit for children in need. There were many more! Employees helped those in their local communities and even those across the globe from where they live. It was so inspiring to hear about my colleagues’ experiences of serving others.

Promega has a mechanism for employees to apply for time off to volunteer through the Promega in Action program. Continue reading

Postcards from the Northern Roman Empire

Some of the thin wood tablets found at Vindolanda in Northumberland, England. Image Copyright The Vindolanda Trust.

Correspondence whether via postcard or letter has been a method of human communication likely since people became literate. Old letters and postcards have been uncovered in attics, basements and garages, offering depth and richness to historical events or adding context to how humans lived in the past. But what about finding correspondence from more than a few hundred years ago?

Interestingly, archeologists were excavating in a Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall and discovered well-preserved thin slices of wood with ink writing dating to the 1st century. While these 25 postcard-sized correspondence, found in a line about 3–4 meters long, are just the latest uncovered at the Vindolanda fort, the documents add to the history of Romans in Britain.

Many of the newly discovered wooden wafer postcards seemed to contain complete messages and could be read without the need for infrared photography. This treasure “hoard” of ancient Roman writing tablets offer insights such as a man named Masclus asking for leave. His previously discovered correspondence also from the Roman fort at Vindolanda included asking his commanding officer to supply more beer to his outpost.

The announcement of these 25 new Roman messages by the sponsors of the fort excavation are only preliminary overview of the find. In fact, archeologists are working on conserving and deciphering messages on the wooden tablets and plan on using infrared photography to reveal if there is any more writing on these postcards from the past.

Read more in the Vindolanda Trust Press Release.

Searching for Secrets in Single Cells

There has been a lot of effort recently to perform whole genome sequencing, for humans and other species. The results yield new frontiers of data analysis that offer a lot of promise for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

One objective of human genome sequencing has been to identify sources of disease and new therapeutic targets. This movement has opened the door to create personalized medicine for cancer, whereby the genetic makeup of an individual’s tumors can be used to determine the most effective drug intervention to administer.

Interest in studying the characteristics unique to individual cells seems obvious when considering the function of healthy cells versus tumor cells, or brain cells compared to heart cells. What has surprised scientists is the realization that two cells in the same tissue can be more different from each other, genetically, than from a cell in another organ.

For example, a small number of brain cells with a specific mutation can lead to some forms of epilepsy while healthy people may also carry cells with these mutations, but too few to cause disease. The lineage of a cell, where it came from and what events shaped its development, ultimately determines what diseases can exist.

Continue reading

Findings May Reveal Earliest Evidence of Selective Dog Breeding

Image showing DeLong chain of islands.

Zhokhov Island is part of the DeLong chain of islands off the north coast of Siberia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A report in the June 2, 2017 edition of Science magazine digs into findings from an ancient archaeological site on the very remote and very, very cold Zhokhov Island, to show that the locals, hardy human hunters, not only lived and worked with dogs, but also quite probably selectively bred the dogs for certain traits.

Archaeologist Vladmir Pitulko with the Russian Academy of Sciences has been excavating on Zhokhov Island since 1989, where he has found dog bones as well as remnants of wooden sleds. With archaezoologist Aleksey Kasparov, also of the RAS, they’ve compared two of the most complete dog skulls found to those of contemporary Siberian Huskies and wolves.

Pitulko and Kasparov wanted to first determine if the skulls were those of dogs or wolves. They first employed two key skull ratios: snout height to skull length and cranium height to skull length. Using these ratios, they were able to reliably distinguish between skulls of a modern wolf and husky. Continue reading

All Aglow in the Ocean Deep

 

Fascinating bioluminescent creature floating on dark waters of the ocean. Polychaete tomopteris.

Today’s blog comes to you from the Promega North America Branch Office.

In nature, the ability to “glow” is actually quite common. Bioluminescence, the chemical reaction involving the molecule luciferin, is a useful adaptation for many lifeforms. Fireflies, mushrooms and creatures of the ocean deep use their internal lightshows to cope with a variety of situations. Used for hunting, communicating, ridding cells of oxygen, and simply surviving in the darkness of the ocean depths, bioluminescence is one of nature’s more flashy, and advantageous traits.

In new research published in April in the journal Scientific Reports, MBARI researchers Séverine Martini and Steve Haddock found that three-quarters of all sea animals make their own light.  The study reviewed 17 years of video from Monterey Bay, Calif in oceans that descended to 2.5 miles, to determine the commonality of bioluminescence in the deep waters.

Martini and Haddock’s observations concluded that 76 percent off all observed animals produced some light, including 97 to 99.7 cnidarians (jellyfish), half of fish, and most polychaetes (worms), cephalopods (squid), and crustaceans (shrimp).

Most of us are familiar with the fabled anglerfish, the menacing deep-sea creature known for attracting ignorant prey with a glowing lure attached to their head. As you descend below 200 meters, where light no longer penetrates, you will be surprised at the unexpected color display of the oceans’ sea life. Bioluminescence is not simply an exotic phenomenon, but an important ecological trait that the oceans’ sea creatures have wholeheartedly adopted to cope with complete darkness. Continue reading